Ten years on, the impact of Foals’ debut album is still felt in their hometown. One Oxford-raised NME writer remembers the excitement of those early days
Blasting out of a tinny phone speaker in a secondary school playground, my first exposure to Foals was sudden and scrappy, as the best formative memories so often are. Despite how humble the setting may have been, it left a mark. Fidgety and unlike anything I’d ever heard, the scatterbrained, stop-start intro to ‘Hummer’ remains etched in my memory, eleven years on. From that point onwards, Foals would inform my young (and not so young) days, their frenetic energy providing fitting soundtrack for the frivolity of youth. Learning they were from just up the road in Oxford made music feel obtainable in a way that the huge pop and rock stars of my younger years had never managed. I was – and still am – obsessed.
A year later, Foals released their debut album, solidifying the potential my youthful ears felt certain ‘Hummer’ held. ‘Antidotes’ remains a masterpiece of intelligent indie-rock, cut and stuck together like a collage. Though its twisting riffs, complex drumming and obtuse lyrics seemed impenetrable on first listen, I delighted in the opportunity to unpick the stitches. From the off, Foals felt like a local secret with the potential to go global – for every knowing nod to the smartarsery of their collegiate days at Oxford University, there was a ‘Two Steps Twice’ or ‘Cassius’, packed full of shout-along hooks and festival-ready choruses.
I soon came to know that once impenetrable sound as ‘math rock’, a sub-genre built on complexity and angular melodic turns. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of ‘Antidotes’, the Oxford scene became flooded with copycats. I convinced myself I could replicate Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith’s knotted guitar-work – the results have thankfully perished along with my first band’s MySpace. Thankfully, though, for a every teenager with a guitarist’s god complex, there was an actually talented musician to push Oxford’s math rock scene forward. The genre became intertwined with Oxford’s underground scene – just as I reached gig-going age, there was a world of clever clogs indie groups to delve into. From cult favourites This Town Needs Guns to Youthmovies – the then-new band of one-time Foals member Andrew Mears – the local scene benefited enormously from Foals taking these complex sounds into the mainstream. Oxford label Big Scary Monsters became a hub of activity within the math rock community, releasing records that pushed boundaries and fostering a scene that felt fit to burst with exciting new talent. Not since the early days of Radiohead and Supergrass had Oxford music felt so alive.
That excitement manifested itself in those now-legendary house parties. For every ever-growing stage Foals set foot on, they made sure to return to the houses of friends and fans, popping up in kitchens and living rooms, and thrashing through ‘Antidotes’ cuts while kids raided their parents’ booze reserves. Smith was left with a missing tooth after one particularly riotous set saw someone stage-dive off a fridge; another saw just three kids turn up (that poor host). That unpredictability was Foals’ calling card, though. The rest of the country soon got a polished-up version of their broadcast into their telly-boxes via Foals’ appearance on a classic Skins: Secret Party episode, but nothing could compare to the hedonism and hangovers of the real thing.
Above all, though, ‘Antidotes’ presented the Oxford youth a band that truly felt their own. Brought up on promises that Oxford’s music scene was ‘iconic’, ‘legendary’ and countless other superlatives, until Foals’ debut album came around, there felt like a chasm between the expectations of their hometown and the reality felt on its cobbled streets. Radiohead, Supergrass and Ride belonged to a generation that had long-since left the sweatbox venues of cultural hotspots like Cowley Road’s The Zodiac (now an O2 Academy), and west Oxford’s Jericho Tavern. Finally, there was a band that Generation Recession could stake claim to.
Nowadays, Foals belong to the world. An arena-filling mainstay of the international touring circuit, their subsequent albums shed that math rock chainmail for something more robust, inspired by the huge sonics of grunge and ambient music. The energy of those early days can still be felt both on-record and at their incomparable live shows, though – whether it’s at Wembley Arena, topping the Main Stage at Reading & Leeds, or in the intimate warm-up shows they remain so fond of (a return to the O2 Academy Oxford’s smaller room in February 2014 saw them bring ‘Hummer’ back to the setlist, and me subsequently lose my mind), Foals remain one of Oxford’s – and Britain at large’s – very best bands.